When you sit and listen to Sir Jackie Stewart, he has a very astute way of making even the most complicated issues seem very much solvable. As a man who has gone from cockpit, to pit wall, and on to several ambassador roles within the paddock, Sir Jackie is one of few men, or women, well placed to comment on just about all aspects of a sport currently under pressure to deliver.
Sat in the plush surroundings of a Knightsbridge hotel, Badger’s Joe Diamond, along with Formula Money’s Christian Sylt, found Sir Jackie on great form, the 76-year old placing his cup down before answering questions on the perilous position Formula 1 and many of its teams currently find themselves in – all, of course, with the benefit of hindsight.
“I’ve always said, that the most important person in a Formula One team is the Chief Financial Officer (CFO). Engineers have no earthly idea of the real values. All they know is ‘Wow, I’ve just found something that can give us two or three tenths of a second per lap.’
“Then they come and see you as a CFO, or a team principal, and explain it to you, with all the figures from the simulator and the windtunnel. However it’s costly, to which they say, ‘but it is within the budget.’ No, it’s in addition to the budget. So then it’s a question of housekeeping.
“But we weren’t spending all the money we had – which I think is the biggest issue now.”
It goes without saying that the ever-increasing finances surrounding Formula One have increased the pressure on teams since the Stewart GP years, however Sir Jackie did offer one piece advice to the current bunch on the grid.
“When it came to talking to sponsors, the minimum relationship for me was five years. And I said we couldn’t win a Grand Prix for five years with a new team. But if you under-promise and over-deliver, you’ll never get the sack.”
One of the biggest alterations in the world of Formula 1 since the famous tartan graced the grid has been the driver ladder. Back then, the likes of Rubens Barichello and Johnny Herbert were picked on raw talent, as oppose to the money laden, nursed-and-nurtured nature of those breaking into the big time in recent years.
“I don’t like the process now that you’ve got to be a Red Bull development driver, yet I think that Helmut Marko has done a great job when you look at who he has brought along. But without that, would they have been as well prepared? Would anybody of found Vettel? Would they have got Ricciardo? Would they now have Sainz and Verstappen?
In the same train of thought, Sir Jackie took time to extend his trepidation towards ‘pay drivers’ in the sport, and the devalue they present.
“This whole idea of buying drives is a very unfortunate thing. And it spirals very negative structures within the sport.
“You can see that by what’s happened to the Indy 500. It was the biggest race in the world, giant crowds, and big names. Suddenly if you couldn’t get into F1, sponsorship from Latin America helped fund you into IndyCar.
“You never saw that happen in Nascar, which still is an all-american show, and it’s values have increased. The drivers still get a lot of money, and the merchandising is bigger than in Formula One.”
An underlying problem with ‘pay drivers’ is safety. Can someone who laps consistently four to five seconds a lap slower than the frontrunners in the third-tier formula of GP3, really warrant a ‘development driver’ role in Formula One? Money says yes, and sadly it seems does the current crop of cars.
“For one thing, and this sound bad, but the cars currently seem to be too easy to drive. Almost anybody can go fast in a Formula One car, if it’s a decent Formula One car.
“It’s not the drivers, it’s the cars. When the car is good now – there’s Mercedes, then there’s Ferrari, then there’s Red Bull, then there’s Williams. Anybody can get in those cars almost immediately and drive them. So therefore there’s something wrong that the engineering has come to a point where too many people can drive them.
“You’ve got to look at a time where there was Jackie Stewart coming along in a Formula 3 car, and people thought ‘Hello, he’s won 11 out of 13 races, he must be quite good, so therefore he’s in a Formula 2 race now. And then he won a touring car race and then a world sportscar race.’ So people then began saying ‘We better hire him’.
“This year there is the arrival of both Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz Jr. – who both boys are very nice by the way – but what’s happening when they can get in those cars and go that fast? It must be too easy. And that’s not me saying it out of jealously, I’m not saying that it was easier now than it was back then for me. That’s bulls**t.”
Expecting a hard-up answer, I decided to ask Sir Jackie, a man who campaigned furiously for years to improve the safety of the sport, whether it needed more danger once again, as uttered by Kimi Raikkonen in the build-up to the Austrian Grand Prix.
“Standing as a very strong opponent of the fact that it has now become so safe that people are taking liberties that we never used to take in our day, and his day before me, but we could not run wide on a fast corner and expect to hold our positions.
“The worst example of that I think was Abu Dhabi 2010. All Fernando Alonso had to do to win the world championship was to finish ahead of Vitaly Petrov’s Renault. He followed him for the entire race.
“Petrov went wide four times, from that chair to the chair (indicating two chairs at either side of the dining table) off the road. All four wheels, and never lost the lead to Alonso. He scrambled back on and Alonso still couldn’t get past him. That wasn’t through Alonso’s inability; it was because Petrov was still carrying the speed. That’s wrong.
“We don’t want someone hitting a telegraph pole, or a farmhouse like I did, or a grass bank like Stirling did that doesn’t move, but you must have something else that stops a driver. We’ve got to have something that doesn’t burst the tyre or break the wheel, but means the grip is not as good.”
As a pleasurable chat nears it’s end, Sir Jackie begins to discuss cruises; after all, half a century of service to the worlds premier motorsport doesn’t go unpaid. One thing is clear though – he’s a man who knew the parameters of the sport, politics and finances surrounding him, and still does. Perhaps it’s that knowhow that has gone missing as of late.